Modified Isometrics for Building Strength/Improving Recovery


In 2013, I started on the road back to physical health from an L5-S1 disc herniation with an L5 spondylolisthesis and pars fracture (which lead to a lot of additional unintended – but good – changes). My regimen consisted of regular Chiropractic visits combined with a training program of mostly low-weight, very high-rep scheme movements and a twist on a form of isometric training, sometimes coined as “Iso Extremes”, “Isometric Holds”, “Extreme Slow ISO’s”, or “Slow Iso Holds”.  They aren’t true isometric holds, nor are they really isometrics, but I’ll get there.

The Lunge Hold, one of the staples of the Slow Iso Hold training

If you are unfamiliar with isometrics or the isometric phase of muscle contraction, it is essentially a muscle(s) generating force/tension without changing muscle length.  Usually when we think of strength, we think of the concentric phase, or the shortening of a muscle to produce movement.  An example would be pushing the weight up from the bottom of a bench press, and is how we would usually measure our strength saying that we can “bench 225 for 12 reps” (or whatever lies we tell).   The other type of contraction would be the lengthening phase to create movement, called an eccentric contraction or the eccentric phase, with an example being the lowering of the weight in bench press to the chest.

From a scientific standpoint, Christian Thibaudeau’s book “The Theory and Application of Modern Strength Methods” states that isometric training leads to the highest activation level of all modes of exercise (over concentric or eccentric), with “activation” referring to the total motor unit involvement of muscle (95.2% vs. 88-89% for the other phases).

An isometric can be performed in a few ways, but for our purposes, let’s think of either:

  • Holding a position (i.e. bottom of a lunge, in the video above), or:
  • Pushing into an immovable object (i.e. pushing into a wall)

Iso’s can be performed at various lengths for time for as little as 3-10 seconds per move at maximal effort, up to 3-5 minutes, as either entire training sessions or as complimentary work at the end of “traditional” weight training.  An observation that many have told me during their training programs is that they don’t get nearly as sore as they do with normal weight training, they recover faster, and notice improvement fairly quickly, which makes it very ideal for both in-season and competition phases (which I relied heavily upon since I was more or less in season for 2 straight years).

In my opinion, perhaps the most important part of isometrics (specially longer duration holds), is that they’re a huge mind game; your brain will try to distract you and trick you into thinking you’re failing when you’ve actually got plenty more in the tank.  Overcoming this hurdle is when people really start to notice the training carry over into other areas of their lives beyond just the physical plane.

Where Slow Iso Holds/Iso Extremes differ from traditional isometrics is that you’re technically doing a very slow eccentric movement.  Take the Lunge Hold in the video above as an example; during a 3-minute hold, if you were to fast forward the video or do a time-lapse, you would be lowering to a deeper and great range of motion/joint angle throughout the hold.  At the 2:30 mark, you should be lower than you were at the :30 mark as you “pull” down into the hold.  For this reason, we can’t call them true isometrics, but it’s easier to say and less confusing to say than “Long-Duration Slow Eccentric Holds”.

An example of Isometrics put into practice is Joel Smith from Just Fly Sports.  Joel reached out to me a few months back, around the time when I thought that only 3 friends of mine at school were looking at this site.  When I got over the excitement of somebody actually filling out the contact form and hitting submit, I answered some of his questions regarding “Iso’s” or “Holds” and how I have implemented them in my training. Joel coaches track and jumping at a PAC 12 college, and has a much different base of athletes/movers that he works with that are all in different seasons/competition states, whereas I mostly work with 5 Chiropractic students sporadically around our exam schedules, and usually have to start from a more of a rehabilitative setting from old injuries.  Regardless, the principles remain the same.  Last week, Joel published Anecdotes and Ideas on Isometric Training for Athletic Speed and Power on his site and has shared a few things that I feel are worth highlighting, first with why isometrics may not be as popular today in training/coaching circles:

Isometrics are tough for a lot of coaches and athletes, because they:

  • Aren’t something S&C coaches can brag as much about (my running back pushed into a bar with 1565N of force at the parallel squat position last Friday!)…
  • If you don’t have force plates, or a good way of monitoring output, they are hard to quantify, and we live in an era of quantification (for good or bad)

I feel silly having not come up with such a simple explanation before, but there it is!  If you can’t brag about it in a group chat or put it on a PowerPoint at a seminar, it’s tough to gain a following.  Simply put, they aren’t that sexy.  I also don’t know how many likes a video of me holding the same position for 5 minutes while slowly getting to a greater joint angle and power breathing in and out of my nose like a maniac in the last 1:30, so why bother? (Half-kidding).

Joel claims some nice improvements about 6 weeks into his training (in an already well-trained state):

Early results have been:

  • +25lb on bench press
  • 20lb increase on trap-bar deadlift
  • +1” on VJ (somewhat limited due to Achilles [injury])
  • +.30m/s on clean pull with 115lb
  • +5% throw height on 30lb vertical med ball throw

Results like that, in my opinion, are what should be expected!  In an untrained individual, the results would most likely be greater.  I’m excited to see how Joel implements iso’s into his training programs, not just from a performance standpoint, but in regards to helping his athlete’s keep themselves healthy by building a bigger foundation of strength. I will definitely be following where he takes his training in the future, and check out the article below to read more of what he’s written on Iso’s.

Recommended Reading:

Just Fly Sports: Anecdotes and Ideas on Isometric Training for Athletic Speed and Power

Train Heroic: Power Through Plateaus With These 3 Isometric Training Protocols

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